Balthazar Jones gets his fill of tourists on a daily basis: He is a yeoman warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary, more commonly known as a Beefeater. (You know: the guys in the red uniforms and funny hats.)
Julia Stuart’s “The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise” is an Anglophile’s delight. The yeoman warders have to live inside the Tower of London, as well as work there, and Stuart weaves in plenty of the 1,000-year history of that storied edifice, from the Tower ravens to the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh. Jones, however, is about to get a new job: that of zookeeper to her majesty’s exotic animals, sent as rather inconvenient gifts from foreign dignitaries.
“It’s not as daft an idea as it sounds,” the palace flunky tells Jones (or rather the reader, since Jones already knew). “Exotic beasts were kept at the Tower from the 13th century ... and the menagerie became an immensely popular tourist attraction. It didn’t close until the 1830s.”
Soon, the Tower is overrun by fancy rats, sugar gliders, opossums, accidental giraffes, a purloined pig, and a Komodo dragon. (The penguins, however, have gone missing.) Did I mention the Tower chaplain, who pens morally correct erotica? It would all be too whimsical for words if it weren’t for the grief anchoring the plot. Jones and his wife, Hebe, lost their only child, Milo, a few years before, and in between all the shenanigans they’re trying to figure out if there’s enough left of their marriage to save.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.